Focco Vijsselaar

This interview took place on March 12, 2021.

You have worked at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy since August 2016 and as Director-General of Enterprise and Innovation since November 2018. Can you tell us more about your directorate’s tasks and objectives and your role within the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy?

The Enterprise and Innovation Directorate has a broad portfolio, covering five policy directorates: digital economy; knowledge and innovation; entrepreneurship; region; and top sectors and industrial policy. The greatest common denominator is actually hidden in what the WaterCampus does too. It is about stimulating good entrepreneurship and knowledge valorization in the Netherlands. With the latter, I mean turning knowledge into skill. In short, what are our strengths and how can we develop them further? 

An important current theme is increasing sustainability in business and industry. Another important topic we are working on is digitalization. In the current COVID crisis, the great importance of digitalization hardly needs mentioning. Digitalization is having a significant impact on the way we work, which is evident in many areas, such as the Smart Industry Fieldlabs. It is quickly becoming essential. Digitalization is also creating new insights and opportunities, such as with 3D printing. Digitalization and sustainability are two sides of the same coin in many cases. I am involved in all these matters on a policy level, and that’s a great job! 

Where does your passion for enterprise and innovation come from?

My background is as an economist. Economists see enterprise and innovation as the driver for development and, ultimately, for prosperity in the broadest sense. I already mentioned the example of sustainability. To produce in a good and healthy manner, you have to continuously focus on how you can do things differently and—most importantly—better. That requires innovation. There are two winged phrases about innovation in economics. The first is “Neue Kombinationen”. Innovation comes from making new combinations. Innovation is achieved by crossovers, trying new things, and letting people talk to each other. I have been to Wetsus on a working visit once. I loved seeing how people from different disciplines literally work side by side at Wetsus. This is where these new combinations arise, resulting in innovation. The second phrase is ‘creative destruction’, in which the successful application of new technology ‘destroys’ the old techniques. As a government, we need to focus on both of these aspects, as it won’t happen on its own. There are many stakeholders with a strong interest in the status quo, so you also have to think carefully about how you structure the economy to create dynamism. The startup and scale-up policy is a great example of this. 

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy has been working on the top sector policy since 2011, in which big and small enterprises work closely with scientists and the government with the mutual goal of strengthening the economy through innovation. Can you reflect on the results of the past ten years? 

It is difficult for me to look back ten years, because I was still working at the Ministry of Finance at that time. However, that does not mean I have nothing to say about it. With the top sector policy, we deliberately focused on what used to be known as the golden triangle. Nowadays we talk about the ‘quadruple helix’, because we also want to include the citizens’ perspective. Nevertheless, our primary focus is on working with the top sectors to establish cooperation between science, industry and government. The deliberate organisation and ensuring that the three parties work together in the context of the respective top sectors has, over time, led to a joint agenda. This also ensures that the various organizations are able to find each other quickly in the event of problems or opportunities. This greatly improves cooperation. The WaterCampus is a successful example of this. Science, government and business also work closely together at the WaterCampus, creating innovation and economic opportunities. Another great example is the events industry. Together with the creative industry top sector and TNO, we developed the field labs on behalf of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy. These field labs, such as the Andre Hazes Jr. concert, are actually live research experiments that allow the companies and knowledge institutions involved to monitor group behaviour and test protective measures, and we as government learn how to organize events safely again. This cooperation, more important now than ever due to COVID, would probably not have come about without the top sectors. As such, in addition to new combinations and innovation, cooperation within the top sectors also leads to manoeuvrability. Together, you can easily respond to new developments, even in times of crisis. 

How do you see the future of the top sector policy? Does the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy plan to develop it further? 

When cooperation within the top sectors was well established a few years ago, the need emerged to think more in terms of societal challenges. These societal challenges often affect multiple top sectors. This has led to a shift towards mission-driven top sector and innovation policy. Within the mission-driven policy, various top sectors formulate ‘moonshots’ with each other. These top sectors understand that we will only get ahead if we work together. The Neue Kombinationen. A great example is agriculture-food-water. The shift started during the past cabinet term and, as far as I am concerned, can continue, as there is every reason to develop and deepen it further. The most important point of attention for me is knowledge valorization. Let me give a few examples. We have a wonderful climate agreement that is currently being translated into plans. Implementing these plans will still require a great deal of innovation. One example is the need for electrical cracking. While possible in theory, the technology is not yet available. We can continue to discuss it fundamentally, but if we want to achieve our climate ambitions, we have to start actually working on it together in the next few years. Another example is the national AI (Artificial Intelligence) agenda. The AI coalition is working to collaborate across the boundaries of various top sectors to implement artificial intelligence in practice. In short, to achieve missions such as sustainability and food safety, we must continue the agenda together. 

There are various campuses in the Netherlands that focus on strengthening the economy through innovation. Some of them focus on a specific region, while others, such as the WaterCampus, are built around strong clusters. How do you see the role of these campuses in strengthening the economy through innovation? 

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy has no specific policy on campuses. We are more focused on ecosystems. In October 2020, we sent a letter to the House of Representatives here) about strengthening research and innovation ecosystems. In that letter, we provide a framework for assessing whether ecosystems work and how to get them working properly. Campuses are a crucial part of this as a place for the startup and scale-up community to come together with large companies in the immediate vicinity of knowledge. This will create strong clusters which, as part of an innovation ecosystem, can make an important contribution to economic growth and prosperity. 

One of the challenges I see is that there is competition between campuses and innovation clusters. We see this the practice of binding young companies to the campus, for example. Do you consider that a risk too? If so, how can we avoid competing with each other? More importantly, how can we ensure the right mutual cooperation? What role can the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy play in this? 

A little competition is never a bad thing. I see no problem in clusters feeling the pressure to keep providing real value. At the same time, it is also important not to dip into each other’s ponds in the Netherlands. I believe that the size of the Netherlands means that we should try to organize the benefits of cooperation, including across campuses and ecosystems. Wetsus is, again, an interesting example In that respect. Wetsus is affiliated with various universities such as WUR, TU Twente and the University of Groningen, and it is clear that this background helps bring things together. That is exactly how I like to look at campuses and ecosystems— a way to discover whether there are opportunities to make connections across ecosystem boundaries and reach national propositions. We should try to strengthen each other and exploit the benefits of our proximity with each other. 

The Netherlands is doing well; which other countries do you see as great examples, and what do you believe makes them so successful? How do you take that into account in your own policy-making? 

Boston has been cited frequently as an example—and rightly so. Boston, together with a large number of companies and universities, has managed to create an extremely successful knowledge valorization ecosystem. It helps that everything in Boston is almost within walking distance of each other. Boston has become a brand in itself. The Netherlands is a bit bigger, obviously, but we can still learn from what they do in Boston and have the opportunity to make even more strong propositions and think about how those propositions relate to other countries. This, in turn, is of great importance to distinguish ourselves at the European level and ensure a strong presence in programmes such as Horizon Europe. We really need to make use of our scale. The Netherlands is large enough to be a leader on many fronts, and small enough to look out for each other and know what we are all doing. We should draw strength from that. So, to get back to your previous question, it is all very well for different ecosystems to have some competition, but we should also try to strengthen each other and allow each other to think along and work together. Like Boston, we should be building a brand. Israel is another good example. In Israel, they are very good at translating knowledge into skills to create business activity.

The Netherlands and water are inextricably linked; the country is an absolute world leader in water technology. It is the birthplace of many pioneering innovations. Achieving economic impact with these innovations is complex. As a relative outsider, how do you view the importance of water technology for the Netherlands? Where do you think the biggest opportunities lie, and how can the sector increase its impact further? 

The Netherlands and water are inextricably linked. It is, therefore, logical that we have excellent knowledge and skills in this area. For many people, the first things that come to mind are delta technology and the maritime sector, but I think water technology is at least equally important. Water technology is a typical example of one of our country’s strengths, and the sector offers numerous wonderful opportunities for collaboration. As a utility water is critical for other sectors such as agriculture, chemistry and health. Although water is relatively cheap, especially in the Netherlands, water technology is at the heart of major international and societal challenges, especially when you include the interface with other sectors. And there are—certainly in other countries—vast water shortages which we can help solve with our technology and knowledge. Hydraloop is a powerful example of this.When it comes to impact, I think the water technology sector still has a lot of potential. Together with Annemieke Nijhof, the previous figurehead of the water sector, we took a close look at the sector. We visited Wetsus together in that context. What struck us is that the water technology sector is still an engineer’s world. People in the sector see solutions to major societal challenges and develop great products to tackle them. The sector’s turnover is already substantial, but it does not yet have the wow factor. It could use a lot more entrepreneurship. To that end, we launched the ‘Vertienvoudigen Export Watertechnologie’ [multiply the export of water technology tenfold] programme, aimed at stimulating many more people to take the step towards becoming a large and growing profitable company. When I was last in Boston, I spoke to an entrepreneur who developed a technology to tackle a specific problem in the water sector. He knew how to sell his product so well that you are almost immediately willing to give him your savings, despite knowing that a superior technology has been developed in the Netherlands. In the coming years, I want to open up markets with the Vertienvoudigen Export Watertechnologie programme, among other things. Enthusiastic entrepreneurs have already joined in, and we are all working on propositions to strengthen each other.

Interested to learn more about entrepreneurship at WaterCampus?
Please contact Ronald Wielinga our manager entrepreneurship via +31 6 121 38 876 or Ronald Wielinga.

About Focco Vijsselaar

Mr F.W. (Focco) Vijselaar has been Director-General of Enterprise and Innovation at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy since October 2018.

Before that, he was Director of General Economic Policy/Chief Economist at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and

Climate Policy. He previously held the position of Director of Foreign Financial Relations at the Ministry of Finance. From 2010 to 2011, Vijselaar served as deputy director Market and Consumer Affairs at the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport.

Focco Vijselaar studied General Economics at the University of Groningen.